Previewing the U.S.-EU Dialogue on China

Date:

MODERATOR:  Thank you so much, Operator, and I’d like to welcome everyone to this afternoon’s on-background briefing.  It’s a pleasure to have you with us.  Just as a reminder here at the top, this briefing today is on background with senior State Department officials who will be discussing the upcoming U.S.-EU dialogue on China.  The contents of this briefing this afternoon, again, are on background, and they’re going to be embargoed until the end of the call.  Okay.

For your information but not for reporting purposes, I am going to let you know who your briefers are today.  We have on the line with us [Senior State Department Official One] and [Senior State Department Official Two].  We’re going to start off with some opening remarks from our briefers and then we will turn to your questions.  Okay.

And with that, I’d like to go ahead and turn it over to [Senior State Department Official One] to kick us off.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE:  Great.  Thanks, [Moderator], and thanks to all of you for taking the time.  Tomorrow, Deputy Secretary Sherman and Secretary General of the European External Action Service Stefano Sannino will lead the second high-level meeting of the U.S.-EU dialogue on China since Secretary Blinken and EU High Representative and Vice President Josep Borrell relaunched the framework in March of this year.

This first – or the first high-level meeting jointly led by Deputy Secretary Sherman and Secretary General Sannino took place in May in Brussels, and that was the first stop on Deputy Secretary Sherman’s first trip as deputy secretary.  The dialogue provides an important opportunity for the United States and the EU to engage on a broad range of topics through a designated working group launched at the first high-level dialogue in May.  Those groups cover six topics: reciprocity, including economic issues; resilience; human rights; security; multilateralism; and areas for constructive engagement with China, such as climate change.  Each of these groups has met at least once since May. 

As President Biden has said, Europe is a natural partner for the United States because we’re committed to the same global order based on democratic norms and institutions.  This is why the administration has sought from its first days to rebuild, revitalize, and re-energize the transatlantic relationship, and particularly our partnership with the EU. 

On practically every issue we work on at the State Department and in practically every region of the world, we are working closely with the EU and our European allies and partners to strengthen the rules-based international order and promote our shared values, including democracy, human rights, and the rule of law.  This includes our approach to the PRC and our engagement and partnerships in the Indo-Pacific region.

On Thursday, U.S.-EU discussions will focus on key areas for our cooperation, including on economic and technology issues, human rights, multilateralism, disinformation, security, and how we pursue results-oriented cooperation with the PRC where our interests align.  A joint statement will be released at the conclusion of the session, and we expect the statement to be robust and cover a range of topics far broader and more detailed than the first joint statement released in May.  This reflects the increasingly convergent U.S. and EU outlooks on the PRC and its increasingly concerning behavior.  And it demonstrates the effectiveness of our approach to rebuild our alliances and partnerships as we compete with the PRC.

On Friday, Deputy Secretary Sherman and Secretary General Sannino will hold high-level consultations on the Indo-Pacific.  This was a key deliverable of Secretary Blinken’s meeting with the EU High Representative Borrell in October and underscores President Biden’s clear message of U.S. support for European engagement in the Indo-Pacific region.  Secretary General Sannino will brief the deputy secretary on implementation of the EU’s recently released Indo-Pacific strategy and Deputy Secretary Sherman will preview the United States forthcoming Indo-Pacific strategy. 

They will discuss areas of cooperation and synergies between the strategies.  We will release a joint statement at the conclusion of the session.  The deputy secretary and secretary general will also participate in a virtual public event hosted by the Brookings Institution at 2:30 p.m. on Friday to discuss the dialogues on China and consultations on the Indo-Pacific, and the deep cooperation between the United States and the EU on these and a wide range of other issues. 

As Secretary Blinken has said, our relationship with the PRC will be the biggest geopolitical test of the 21st century.  We know we must engage the PRC from a position of strength.  That requires working with allies and partners multilaterally and in bilateral frameworks like the discussion this week, because our combined weight is much harder for the PRC to ignore.  The complexity of our respective relationships with the PRC only underscores the importance of our continued consultation and coordination.  That is the purpose of the U.S.-EU dialogue on China, both the high-level meetings and the ongoing continuous work between our two teams.

I’ll now turn it over to my colleague to give some additional context on the State Department’s efforts on China under Secretary Blinken.  [Senior State Department Official Two], over to you.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO:  Thanks, [Senior State Department Official One], thanks, [Moderator].  Look, I know everyone on the call is generally familiar with our – with the administration’s policy towards the PRC.  What I’d like to focus on are really the portions of it that center here at the State Department in support of the President’s China policy, so I’ll just lead off by mentioning quickly a few of the highlights.  I think all of you are aware that Secretary Blinken has participated in at least half a dozen calls and meetings with senior PRC officials, including most recently the President’s November 15th virtual meeting with Xi Jinping.

One thing that may not be as apparent is that the deputy secretary within the department has been asked by Secretary Blinken to take a special focus on both PRC issues and the Indo-Pacific region.  So what I’d like to do is go through a few of her engagements, of which the U.S.-EU-China dialogue is a central one.

Following the – you’ll recall the Anchorage meetings back in March, when Secretary Blinken and National Security Advisor Sullivan met with Yang Jiechi.  That was really when the deputy secretary began a fairly deliberate drumbeat of travel and engagements aimed largely to build support among our allies and partners.  She followed up on the Secretary’s commitment to relaunch this dialogue that we’re having this week, and that was during her first stop of her first overseas trip.  She also did a lot of work earlier this year on travel to Indonesia, Cambodia, Thailand, and the theme of those trips was really reaffirming our commitment to ASEAN centrality. 

She had a very direct conversation in Phnom Penh with Prime Minister Hun Sen, where she had a very frank discussion about our concerns regarding the PRC’s military presence and the construction of facilities at Ream Naval Base.  And I think our core message there was the importance of maintaining an independent and balanced foreign policy, in accordance with Cambodia’s own national interests.

By July, the deputy had taken her second overseas trip, and that was a trip focused largely on alliance management and some of our other key partners in the East Asia region.  She went to Tokyo, to Korea.  She also visited our democratic strategic partner Mongolia, and made the only trip to the PRC by a senior official from State that was focused – I mean, Secretary Kerry has been there, but this was focused on a broad agenda, not just an issue-specific visit. 

And I’m sure many of you will recall there was some theatrical rhetoric from the PRC side surrounding the visit, but the part that I wanted to talk about a bit today we haven’t really gone into much detail about before, and that was the agreement that she reached at the time with her Chinese counterparts to create working groups between the United States and the PRC on a number of issues that are maybe not at the strategic level, but they’re quite consequential in the bilateral relationship, and these include issues such as coercive exit bans on our American citizens, access for U.S. journalists to the PRC. 

And these working groups, they generally took the form of our embassy counterparts in Beijing – these are our colleagues from the State Department working with the foreign ministry.  And they have been, I would say, professional in their character.  And we have had some progress on small but important and persistent concerns in recent months.  And I think this reality kind of reflects our overall theory of the case, which is that managing an intensely competitive and even more competitive U.S.-China relationship does require diplomatic pressure release valves, both at the senior levels – which is why this President was focused on guard rails, building guard rails in his discussion with Xi Jinping – and then through these working groups which are focused on more practical issues. 

So I’ll highlight just a little bit more on what we’ve done in the working groups, and then I’ll come back at the end to talk a bit more about how we’re organized in the department on our policy towards the PRC. 

I mentioned coercive exit bans and arbitrary detention, which are two very strong concerns we have had with the PRC.  We have discussed these issues not just in the working groups, in all channels.  And up to the Secretary, I know his view is that no human being should be a bargaining chip.  He feels that very strongly, and many of us in the building are working on finding ways to both increase the deterrent to countries that adopt these practices and then, practically speaking, advocate for their release.

I mentioned the deputy secretary discussed this in Tianjin.  She actually raised the cases of every American citizen who is arbitrarily detained or subject to an exit ban by name, and she also met with the families of each of these individuals.  I don’t want to get into the names, just for privacy reasons, but what I can say is that through the working groups we have had some success in securing the release of a small number of American citizens who were subject to coercive exit bans in recent months.

The second broad area I wanted to touch on – and I think some of you are probably aware of the media access agreement that we reached recently – the genesis of this really was when the deputy went to Tianjin, she had a virtual meeting with our U.S. journalists.  And in that meeting she heard – these were U.S. journalists who were based in the PRC, in the mainland.  And there were also a couple of calls with several of your organizations back here.  And in those meetings she heard directly about the experiences they undergo in the PRC, the harassment they face, the hostile environment for a free press.  I mean, all topics you’re familiar with.

But I think both she and the Secretary, after hearing these concerns and after talking with the senior editorial leadership at a number of U.S. publications, they really committed to prioritize through the working groups whatever improvements we could make under the framework of media reciprocity.  And we did reach agreement in November on a small step, which will allow us to – we secured the resumption of issuance of visas for U.S. journalists for the first time since 2020.  It’s an agreement that’s framed reciprocally, so we’ll also resume issuing to PRC journalists who seek to come here.

But the other part of the agreement was aimed at stabilizing our press corps in China by extending – convincing the Chinese to reciprocally extend the duration of status, the duration of their visas to 12 months so they had more confidence they could come and go when they wanted to.

So I mentioned I wanted to end with just a brief note of how we’re organized in the department.  At the Secretary’s request, Deputy Secretary Sherman has also initiated a biweekly PRC strategy group, which is basically a grouping that brings together the department’s senior officials involved on China, in an effort to elevate and synchronize and coordinate our engagement across the board, including with allies and partners.  And so I think it’s in that spirit that tomorrow’s meetings with the EU will be, I think, a real tangible manifestation of some of the work that’s going on here.

So with that, I’ll turn it back to [Moderator] and I appreciate any questions you guys have.  Over.

MODERATOR:  Thank you, [Senior State Department Official Two], and thank you, [Senior State Department Official One].  Operator, at this point, would you please go ahead and repeat our – the instructions for getting into the question queue.

OPERATOR:  Yes, certainly.  Ladies and gentlemen, if you do wish to ask a question, please press 1 and then 0 on your telephone keypad.  You can withdraw your question at any time by repeating the 1-0 command.  And if using a speaker phone, please pick up the handset before pressing the numbers.  Once again, to ask a question, please press 1-0 at this time.

MODERATOR:  Great.  Thank you, Operator.  We have our first question.  Let’s go to the line of Kylie Atwood.  Kylie.

OPERATOR:  Kylie, your line is open.

QUESTION:  Hi, [Moderator] and everyone.  Thank you for doing this.  I think my question is best suited for [Senior State Department Official Two], because you mentioned the Ream Naval Base.  And I was curious, given that the U.S. has been very explicit about its concerns with regard to China’s military presence at that base, has there been any progress in getting Cambodia to rid the – to rid that base of PRC involvement?

And then just broadly speaking, can you touch on concerns over Chinese projects abroad that could be viewed as military or basing projects overseas?

And sorry, I have one more question that is from my colleague.  I am curious about the Olympics, if a diplomatic boycott will be discussed with allies during this U.S.-EU China meeting.  Thank you very much.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO:  Yes, thanks, Kylie.  Look, on Cambodia, I mean, I think it’s really true both for Cambodia and for other areas where we have concerns about PRC military and basing activities.  I think what is fair to say is that the countries who are involved, including Cambodia, have a very clear sense from this administration of our concerns.  And we’ve also tried to be very honest about the need for countries to consider the implications for their own ability to have independent foreign – and balanced foreign policies if they are overexposed to PRC malign influence of any type, and basing is one form of it.

On the Olympics, I don’t have anything to say beyond what the President said just before Thanksgiving.  I mean, he’s been honest that he’s considering the issue, but I don’t have anything beyond that.

MODERATOR:  Thank you.  And I would go ahead and reiterate if folks do have a question, you can dial 1 then 0 to get into the question queue.  We don’t have anybody in the queue at the moment, so we will stand by just for a moment.  Please go ahead and get your questions together and come into the queue.  We’ll just stand by for a moment.

Great.  Let’s go to the line of Simon Lewis at Reuters.

QUESTION:  Hi, and —

OPERATOR:  And Mr. —

QUESTION:  Yeah, can you hear me?

MODERATOR:  We can hear you, Simon.  Go ahead.

QUESTION:  Okay.  Okay.  The – so firstly, just a couple of things.  Firstly, you mentioned that the statement coming out from this meeting on Thursday is going to be some kind of robust – the word was “robust” statement on China.  I wonder if you could give a bit more detail on what kind of – what kind of thing that – the statement might be talking about, and is there – can we expect anything else other than a robust statement? 

And secondly, I wondered whether Myanmar/Burma is going to come up in this meeting.  Obviously there’s issues with the oil and gas projects that U.S. companies and also French companies are involved in.  Is that something that you guys are talking about in regard to how China is – how potentially sanctioning that project because it leaves things open for China?  Is that something that could be on the agenda in this meeting, or anything else related to the crisis in Myanmar?  Thank you.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE:  Great.  I’m happy to cover the first question and then I can turn it over to [Senior State Department Official Two] to touch on the second.

In terms of the statement, I would just say that this statement will reflect obviously the work that has been done by all of the working groups since the last meeting in May, and really just a broadening of our cooperation with the EU on PRC-related issues, which reflects the increasing convergence in terms of our analysis of the challenge that the PRC poses and our desire to work together based on our shared values in order to develop complementary if not common approaches to that challenge.  And so I would just look for it to be more broad-based and reflective of the work that has occurred in those working groups as well as, of course, the actual dialogue that will occur tomorrow.

[Senior State Department Official Two], maybe I can hand it over to you for the second question.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO:  Yes.  Simon, can you just repeat the second part of that for me?

OPERATOR:  Give me a moment as I retrieve his line here.  And please go ahead, Simon. 

QUESTION:  Hi, yeah.  So yeah, the question was on whether Myanmar at any – in any way sort of calibrating response to the crisis in Myanmar between the U.S. and the EU is going to be on the agenda in this meeting given China’s role there, and specifically on sanctions that might impact the oil and gas sector in the country and whether that’s something that will come up in this – in these – this meeting.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO:  Yeah.  Look, I mean, we’ve had pretty extensive discussions with both Beijing in bilateral channels and then with our allies and partners on various aspects of the Burma issue.  I mean, I don’t want to get into kind of the substance of what we’re going to do before we do it, so I would point you more towards the statement as our outcome on this.  But I would say in general terms, we have ongoing dialogue – and this is not the only channel through which we discussed that issue with either Beijing or the EU.

MODERATOR:  Okay.  And let’s go to the line of Courtney McBride. 

QUESTION:  Thank you.  [Senior State Department Official Two], you mentioned progress on small but important issues over recent months, and I’m just wondering:  Are there other avenues for progress, perhaps on additional small items or on larger issues that build on those past efforts? 

And to follow up on Kylie’s second question, are there particular regions, countries, or types of projects by Beijing overseas that are generating the greatest concern for or advocacy by the U.S.?  Thanks.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO:  Yeah, sure.  Well, look, I think other areas where there’s – I would say interests align with Beijing would include most recently on energy security.  You saw the announcement on releases from the strategic petroleum reserves.  That’s one area where we’ve been able to work together.  And obviously Special Envoy Kerry’s joint statement on climate is another. 

And in terms of the regions and types of projects, I mean, really I think the reason we’re highlighting in this briefing the military basing is because that that is, I think, the single greatest potential concern.  So we have been focused quite a bit on that issue, both within the U.S. Government and with allies and partners in those countries where that issue plays out.

MODERATOR:  Let’s go the line of Rosiland Jordan.

QUESTION:  Hi.  Thanks, [Moderator].  Thanks, everyone, for doing this call.  Two questions.  One, timing:  When do we expect to see any press or public viewing of events connected to this dialogue?  And two, a more substantial question:  What will be the discussion on how to provide a counterbalance to Chinese economic and political influence in both Latin America and in sub-Saharan Africa?  Thanks.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE:  Sure.  So in terms of the public component of the visit, the event on Friday afternoon at Brookings will be the main public component, in addition to the statements which you will see released over the course of the visit.  We may be able to provide more specific timing, but I’ll leave that there now and let [Moderator] comment if he’d like. 

And then, [Senior State Department Official Two], I don’t know if you want to talk about the economic coercion piece.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO:  Yeah.  I mean, we’ve been doing quite a bit of work on not just economic coercion but various aspects of countering PRC disinformation.  There are a range of problematic PRC behaviors and policies that play out in the various domains.  And so I think what I would say on that is that we have done quite a bit within the department to change both the structure and the focus of our efforts over the – and not just under this administration, but in recent years, we’ve actually created a program of regional China officers.  We now have, I think, 18, and they are in – they’re based overseas.  They work with our country teams to help assess the challenge and strengthen our advocacy.  We work through the channels we’re discussing here – allies, partners, multilateral, et cetera. 

So it’s an increasing focus of our work.  But beyond that, I don’t really have anything specific to say about Latin America or sub-Saharan Africa right now, though. 

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE:  And maybe I can just add that it’s important to note that the U.S.-EU China – dialogue on China is one area where we talk about these issues, but certainly pushing back against economic coercion by the PRC specifically and others was a topic of the Trade and Technology Council ministerial that happened earlier this fall in Pittsburgh.  And we have engaged in robust discussions with the EU on a variety of issues that are related. 

But I would say as well I expect that there will be conversations around Build Back Better World and the EU’s Global Gateway program, which are designed to provide an alternative to the Belt and Road Initiative.  Of course, we also talk intensely about issues such as investment screening, supply chain resilience, and any number of other issues in the economic context, both in the TTC and then analogously in the dialogue on China.  So that’s certainly an area where we have robust conversations ongoing transatlantically.  

MODERATOR:  I think we have time for just one more question.  Rosiland, the notice to the press did go out regarding the conversation that Deputy Secretary Sherman and Secretary General Sannino will have on Friday.  That’s going to be at 2:30, so there – that notice to the press is out.

At this point, let’s go to the line of Nike Ching.

QUESTION:  (Inaudible.)  I would like to ask about South China Sea dispute, and I would like to know whether or not a more frequent joint freedom of navigation between the U.S. and EU in the Indo-Pacific region, including South China Sea and Taiwan Strait, is something that has been discussed.  And if I could get your take on that, that’ll be great.

Separately, Indonesia is traditionally not too involved in the South China Sea dispute, but recent media reports indicate an unusual protest from China against Indonesia for oil and natural gas drilling in disputed maritime territory.  I want to know if [Senior State Department Official Two] have any comment on that.  Thank you so much.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO:  Sure.  Well, look, I think on the issues you mentioned there’s obviously a growing concern, I think on both sides of the Atlantic, about PRC’s asserted activities, gray zone activities, in both the South and East China Sea contexts and in the cross-strait context.  And so I think we’ve had pretty fruitful discussions both with the EU and a number of our European partners on how we see the challenge.  I also think that, as events in Lithuania remind us, the EU and many EU members, as well as other Europeans, have been focused quite a bit on the economic coercion aspects of the PRC response to Lithuania’s decision to open a Taiwan trade office.  So these issues I think are very much current in our conversations in the transatlantic context and I suspect they’ll continue to be so long as the underlying problems remain.

MODERATOR:  I believe we have time for just one more question.  Let’s quickly go to the line of Sylvie Lanteaume.

QUESTION:  Hello.

MODERATOR:  Yes, we can hear you, Sylvie.  Go ahead, please.

QUESTION:  Okay.  Okay, thank you.  Can you tell me what you expect from the EU in terms of trade with China?  And also, is there a convergence of view on Taiwan?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE:  Sure.  So I would say that the primary forum for discussion of trade issues is the Trade and Technology Council rather than the U.S.-EU dialogue on China, but we have certainly consulted with the EU on our approach to trade issues with the PRC as well as on the CAI, which, as you know, is currently on hold, and more importantly, our shared concerns in terms of state-owned enterprises, in terms of level playing field issues broadly, and economic coercion that we see from the PRC.

On Taiwan, I would say that certainly what we have seen over the last couple of months has certainly been concern on both sides of the Atlantic regarding the steps that Taiwan and Lithuania have taken to deepen their cooperation, particularly through Taiwan’s opening of the representative office in Vilnius and Lithuania’s plans to open a reciprocal office in Taipei, and certainly Taiwan will be a topic of discussion in the dialogue tomorrow.

MODERATOR:  And with that, we’re out of time.  I would like to quickly thank once again everyone for dialing in and participating with us today.  I’d especially like to thank our two senior State Department officials who were our briefers.  Again, that’s [Senior State Department Official One] and [Senior State Department Official Two].  Once again, as a reminder, this briefing was on background to senior State Department officials, and with that, the briefing is concluded and the embargo is lifted.  Have a great rest of your day.

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